Candy or medicine: Can you tell the difference?

October 31, 2013

Published October 31, 2013

Prescription use among Americans is up, and it may be contributing to the increase of unintentional drug poisonings of children at home.

“I think that the medications are more available to children, meaning we are not putting them away like we used to,” said Dr. Michael Lanigan, emergency room physician at SUNY Downstate in Bay Ridge, N.Y. “And while there are child-proof lids, it's easier for kids to get into them.”

Data from the American Association of Poison Control Centers found that emergency room visits for pediatric pharmaceutical exposures have increased 30 percent between 2001 and 2008, according to a study in the journal Pediatrics.

Click here to read more on this study.

Medications that are commonly ingested include sleep aids, opioid painkillers, cardiovascular medications, diabetic drugs, cold medicines, aspirin and acetaminophen.

And the side effects from these drugs can be toxic to children.

“Opiods are very strong sedatives and if taken in large amounts, can induce sleep and even coma,” Lanigan said. “Cardiovascular drugs can cause drops in blood pressure and heart rate… aspirin is a notorious bad overdose.”

Casey Gittelman, a 12-year-old from Ohio, realized children were taking these pills – accidentally – so she and a friend decided to conduct a study, which they presented at school.

The study was so impressive, the American Academy of Pediatrics asked Gittelman to present at its annual convention recently in Boston.

“Well, both of my parents are physicians, so I heard a lot of stories about these types of problems,” Casey said. “So I thought it would be interesting to do a study about it.”

Casey and her friend used a medicine cabinet from the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, which contained a mixture of 20 candies and medicines.

Thirty teachers and 30 kindergarten students were asked to determine which items were candy, and which were medicine.

“I wasn't very surprised that a lot of the kindergarteners couldn't tell the difference, but I was surprised because not a lot of the teachers did very well on the test,” Casey said. “I thought adults would know how to tell the difference because they have more experienced with medicines.”

One in four students and one in five teachers had difficulty telling the difference between medicine and candy.

Casey’s study also found that pills that were circular, shiny, similar in color and had no markings on them were most often mistaken for candy.

“I think manufacturers could make medicines to look less like candy because we believe that less of these ingestions will occur in kids,” Casey said.

Lanigan agreed.

“Toxic medications, those should be packaged as benignly and as less colorful possible,” he said. Lanigan reminds parents to store their medications in a secure location where children cannot gain access and to throw away any old or unused prescriptions.

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